Israel

Egypt In Turmoil: What It Means For The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Though Israeli leaders were pleasantly surprised by some aspects of Mohammed Morsi's reign, they are not sorry to see him go. For one thing, it's a big blow to Hamas.

Egyptian watchtower at Rafah checkpoint at the Gaza border
Egyptian watchtower at Rafah checkpoint at the Gaza border
Laurent Zecchini

JERUSALEM - The order from Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to the members of his government is clear: silence on the events unfolding in Egypt.

“Since the situation is profoundly unclear, it is not the moment to let ministers or spokesmen express themselves," says one senior Israeli official. "Saying good things now about the Egyptian army, or (deposed President Mohammed) Morsi or liberals like Mohamed El Baradei wouldn’t help anything. The best is not to appear involved in any way.”

Unofficially, Israeli leaders are doubly pleased by the fall of President Morsi. Firstly because it means at sudden halt to the Muslim Brotherhood’s political ambitions in neighboring Egypt; secondly, these events also mean a big setback for the Hamas government in Gaza, leaving it more isolated than ever.

Even more powerful than Israeli silence is the very loudly expressed satisfaction of Palestinian Authority leaders, who struggles to hide the jubilation for an inevitable political weakening of Hamas: a “historic day for Egypt and a lesson for all of us,” the spokesman of President Mahmoud Abbas said.

“It’s true that there is a little indecency in this reaction," an Israeli diplomat tells Le Monde. "But that does not surprise us: Fatah (Abbas’s party) couldn’t conceal any better how the Israeli operations “Cast Lead” in 12/08-01/09 and “Pillar of Defence” in November 2012 against Gaza indirectly endorsed their political interests.”

Even if the Jewish state had viewed Morsi's election with anxiety, the first year of his presidency proved to be more positive than expected. Besides the fact that the new government didn't question the 1979 peace treaty between the two countries, Morsi also played a constructive role in bringing about a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas during last November's outbreak of violence. For the rest, he has also given the army the responsibility of relations with Hamas. Israeli officials have noted that their security cooperation with Cairo, far from being weakened has even got stronger.

Break with Iran and Syria

The Egypt ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood – an organization from which Hamas was born – turned a deaf ear to Hamas calls for the liberalization of political and economic exchanges with the territory it controls. The Rafah checkpoint, at the Egyptian border, was not opened for goods, and the “black list” of some of the residents of Gaza who are banned from Egypt was not cancelled. The Muslim Brotherhood was also cautious towards the activity of the Palestinian Jihadists on Egyptian soil, especially in the Sinai Peninsula.

It is likely that due to the very volatile situation in Sinai, the Egyptian army will keep the government of Hamas under tight surveillance. These past few days, it has destroyed more than 40 smuggling tunnels passing under the border with Gaza. Israeli analysts do not believe, however, that there is a risk that a large number of Islamist combatants from Gaza would infiltrate Egypt in order to help the Muslim Brotherhood.

Hamas, aware of the massive political setback that has ricocheted across the Egyptian border, will try to keep the situation in Gaza under control, in order not to lose the little credit it has left with the Egyptian army, of which it will remain dependant whichever government takes hold in Cairo.

The Hamas-led government of Ismail Haniyeh will, moreover, continue to be vigilant against the Islamist Jihad and Salafist groups operating in Gaza, in order to preserve the very fragile, but overall lasting ceasefire with Israel.

Hamas' rapidly depleting support, politically and financially, can also be traced to a break with Iran, ever since the chief of the political branch of the Palestinian party, Khaled Meshaal, had cut ties with Teheran over the Syrian conflict. This of course also means that Hamas no longer has aid from the regime of Bashar Al-Assad.

The irony of the situation is that the Movement of Islamic Resistance (Hamas) had been convinced that it could do without these two major sponsors in the region, in favor of strong ties with Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood. But we now see that hopes for such an ideological and strategic cooperation with Cairo were destined to be stillborn. Just one more reason for Israel to be, discretely, satisfied with how the Egyptian situation has evolved.

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